Why Managers Don’t Confront—Fear of Crying

Remember Tom Hanks’ line in the movie, A League of Their Own, about a girls professional softball team: “Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.” Hanks’ character isn’t the only manager who recoils from crying on the job. 

For the most part, the “crying” issue is about women who “might” cry or have had a “history” of crying on the job. The very prospect makes many (usually male) managers’ blood run cold. 

Get a grip 

Our job as managers is to confront work-related problems on our watch. It would be paradise if every employee performed perfectly from day one. But last I checked, all the apples were eaten.

 The reality is that we don’t know for sure what anyone’s reaction will be to the feedback we give. It could be:

  • Dead silence or an angry retort
  • Jubilation or rapid-fire questions
  • A sigh of relief or CRYING  

Most managers would say, “For everything, except the crying, I’d know what to say or do. I wouldn’t feel so helpless or hard-hearted.” 

The crying game 

As managers, we are not psychologists. It’s not our job to analyze our employees. But we do know that crying is an emotional response by certain employees when caught off-guard by unwanted feedback. 

A crying employee is not the same as a crying family member or friend. It’s not appropriate for us, as managers, to comfort physically or to change our message. So what should we do? 

Here’s a scenario: At a performance feedback meeting with your employee, you explain that her performance is unsatisfactory and she’s being placed on 3 month’s probation. She begins to cry. 

You next steps are to: 

  • Remain quiet at your desk or conference table for a couple minutes, giving her time to compose herself
  • Then ask if she is prepared to continue the conversation about next steps
  •  If she says “yes” continue with your message
  •  If she says “no” or it’s obvious that she’s too distressed, tell her: “I can see that you  need some time to gather yourself. Let’s postpone the rest of our conversation for now and get together in an hour.”
  • Resume the meeting as rescheduled and complete what you need to cover 

Please remember: You did not create the problem that led to the actions you had to take. The employee did.  

Employees have many ways to respond emotionally to situations. Although crying is one, it’s rare in most business settings. 

Any manager who does not confront an employee because s/he fears potential crying will soon deliver this blaring message throughout the office: “If you want to keep the heat off yourself, cry every time I (your boss) look at you cross-eyed.” 

Men cry and so have I…. 

I once contracted with an outside training consultant, gave him lots of work, and provided executive entrée. I treated him as an ally until he started abusing these privileges. When I confronted him about my lost trust, he broke down. 

At a critical time in my career, I was asked to manage a huge department where I was in over my head. My VP mentor, John, initiated a meeting with me and the senior VP, where he volunteered to give me a hand. I was overcome with feelings of inadequacy, struggling to disguise most of my tears. 

In both cases, the confronting launched the fix, the tears dried, and right outcomes were achieved. It’s difficult but it makes for positive change. 

There’s no crying in business…. 

The odds of an employee crying when you deliver bad news are slim. If s/he does, that’s okay. It’s a manager’s job to manage. You shouldn’t be cold or insensitive when confronting but factual, balanced and fair. 

That’s how you set the right context for your message and minimize any emotional response.  To abdicate your responsibility to manage fairly is a disservice to your employees. If you let the fear of crying make you a less effective manager, everyone loses. 

Have you had a “crying at work” experience? What caused it and how was it handled?